Haven’t we heard this story before?

Ageing academics set university timebomb

UNIVERSITIES face a new crisis: up to 40 per cent of academics and lecturers are expected to retire over the next decade, with no one to replace them.

I remember reading stories like this ten years ago. You’d have thought everyone was going to retire by now, leaving lots of lovely jobs for all the up-and-coming grad students like me. Then, mysteriously, the old guard failed to retire, or if they did retire, the university decided not to keep their position going. Or they came back to teach part-time because they liked it so much. Apparently only 41 percent of American academics plan to retire at 65. (No stats for Australia, sorry.)

And no one to replace them? I wouldn’t worry. Even if everyone retired tomorrow, there’d still be a huge backlog of postdocs and postgrads to do the teaching, since many departments haven’t been good at discouraging students from doing PhDs. Ironically, the less discriminating and the less responsible they are about this, the more postgrads they have to do the teaching. Postgrads are cheaper, too, so it’s a win for everyone except for PhDs who are trying to get on permanently. (I say this as one of the lucky postgrads, getting to teach like I have.)

Let’s do the math. Say every professor supervises — what — 30 PhD students over their career? How many will get that professor’s job when he or she retires? One. Or maybe none, if universities keep downsizing. Which means that more and more qualified academics are chasing fewer and fewer jobs. There’s your real timebomb. The collapse of the academic talent pool when everyone realises that going for a PhD won’t lead to an university job.